Audience Dialogue

Content management systems

If you want a number of people (even as few as three) to share in the development of your website, it gets confusing if you use normal HTML publishing methods such as FTP. You have conversations like this...

Aaron: "Babar, did you update that file of meetings on the server?"

Babar: "No, I was going to, but I forgot."

Aaron: "Anyway, it's changed, but I think it's wrong. It says the next meeting is on the 29th, but shouldn't it be the 28th? Did somebody change the date?"

Babar: "Maybe Cacafogo did it. He was here yesterday. And that link to the venues page has changed back to last month's problem. Did you edit that?"

When this sort of thing keeps happening, you know you need a content management system - often called CMS for short. A CMS is a piece of software that manages website development. It can keep track of all changes to a website. It will record who changed what, and when, and can allow for notes to be added. A writer can create a new page (with standard navigation bars and images in the same location on each page) and submit it, without using HTML software. An editor can receive all the proposed changes, and OK them, or send them back to the writer to be corrected. If you are working in an organization that's changing its website more than once a day, with several people working on it, using a CMS can bypass a lot of annoying problems, and save a lot of time.

That comes at a cost, of course: a possible cost in money, and a big cost in time - for everybody to learn how to use the system. The up-front cost of content management systems ranges from zero to a million dollars or more. But if your organization is a large one, perhaps with hundreds of web developers (such as a university) the cost of the software is a small component of the total cost of the system.

There are hundreds of CMS to choose from - partly because it's not very difficult to write one. Partly because of this range of choices, what is difficult is to find a system that suits the organization well. Though a CMS is meant to make life easier, in several organizations we've worked with, the adoption of a CMS seems to have had the opposite effect - by creating new rigidities that need their own work-arounds. Sometimes, a huge amount of effort in a CMS seems to have gone into devising ingenious ways of stopping people from doing things that they want to do. When this happens, a CMS can end up wasting more money (in the form of staff time) than it saves. And because IT people are defensive about systems they've spent a lot of time developing, and situations are constantly changing, it's very hard to be sure that a CMS has improved efficiency.

How content management systems work

A typical CMS works like this:

1. A professional web developer designs a web page format - typically with a logo at the top, and standard navigation options across the top, down the left hand side, and/or at the foot of the page.

2. This new format is used to create a master template.

3. All the web developers in the organization get to use special software that lets them add text and images to web pages, automatically using the master template.

4. Each completed page is submitted to an editor, who might make changes or send it back to the writer for revision. When the page is OK, the editor clicks an on-screen PUBLISH button and uploads the page to the web server, so that the world can read it.

5. Each page is usually saved on a text database. Most web pages have file names that end in .htm (usually implying Microsoft origin) or .html (usually implying Unix), but sometimes you will see pages ending in other file extensions, such as .php or .cfm or .asp. These are often generated by content management systems. However, some CMSs will generate plain .html pages, which are more easily found by search engines.

6. The CMS also generates indexes, showing what files have been changed when, who updated which file, and so on.

The more elaborate CMSs perform a lot more functions (such as archives, built-in search engines, permission control, and workflow management), but the above ones are basic.

Types of CMS

1. High End. If your organization is really large, you might have a super-powerful CMS, such as the $500,000-up Vignette or the free Zope. The software cost doesn't make a huge difference to the final budget, because most of the money goes towards running an entire department of CMS specialists. Zope and CCM are used by huge organizations like NATO, the World Bank, and the US Navy. In such organizations there are hundreds of people who need to upload information to a website or intranet, and they will have a huge range of varying needs - hence the complexity and expense of this class of CMS.

We mention this type of software so that you know it exists - not because Audience Dialogue does this kind of specialized consulting work.

2. Middle range. Here we're talking about less complex software, that's often a lot easier to set up than the high-end software. The typical cost is around $50,000 for a whole organization (for the software itself), and maybe more than that in consultants' fees to get it working. An example of mid-range software that by all accounts works very smoothly is the Atomz CMS.

Another middle-range system is Greymatter (www.noahgrey.com/greysoft). This is open source software, quite complex, and if you don't have Unix/Linux skills it could be expensive to set up - even though it costs nothing to buy. It's well supported by a forum of its users.

Perhaps the most widely used mid-range CMS is PHP-Nuke, which, like many content management systems, stores the pages in a SQL database.

A new contender in mid-2007 is Plumi, which is based on Plone, which in turn is based on Zope (above). Plumi adds video-sharing facilities to Plone's capabilities. It's open source - i.e. free - so small organzations can use it to set up their own online TV systems.

3. Low end. Content management systems for small organizations, that do a lot of web publishing - such as the small media and arts organizations that are Audience Dialogue's clients. Some examples of this software, which mostly costs less than 1000 US dollars for 10 users, are:

4. Alternatives. If you don't need the full range of functions of CMS software, you might be able to use totally different software - often free- that serves a related purpose. Examples are:

In case you're wondering, this site is not generated by a CMS. That's because Audience Dialogue isn't a large enough organization to need one. You need CMS most when several of these conditions apply...

Does that type of organization sound familiar? Content management systems are perfect for media organizations, with a number of journalists writing news stories to go online.

CMS configurations

A large organization will have its own server, and usually run the CMS software on the server. All the contributors will be using browser-like software to edit pages on the server. All the more complex CMS software uses this model, from Vignette and Zope (above) to Bricolage (above).

Small organizations (without their own servers, and whose websites are hosted by ISPs) need a different approach to CMS. For these, the content management software often runs on the computer of each contributor, so you need to buy as many copies as there are contributors. Software such as Contribute (above) and CityDesk (above) works nicely in this situation, because the server sees this as traditional uploading via FTP, or a similar method.

Some links

For more background information on content management systems, see: